I met Barbara when she joined one of our local critique groups. Her smile and joy for life is infectious. Last year we went to Table Rock Writers’ Workshop together, along with her husband Dan, and ended up on the wrong side of Charlotte . . . going the wrong way. Instead of getting upset or worried, it became an adventure! We laughed, found our way, and still made it to the mountains in good time.
A sense of adventure is second nature to Barbara and Dan – they were missionaries in Papua, Indonesia for over thirty-five years working with the Sougb Tribe. They fell in love with the people and their language. This from the preface of Barbara’s book of poetry, Star Drops and Spider Hairs – “. . . became fluent in their language – first analyzing it, then translating Christian scriptures, religious instruction booklets, and other teaching and cultural materials into their native tongue. These books were the first ever printed in the Sougb language.”
Reading Barbara’s poems there is no question what life was like among the Sougb people, and in the jungles of Papua, Indonesia. One gets a sense of the cultural differences in the misunderstandings, the humor and eventual connection as languages formed a bridge. There are the real hardships in living with tropical weather, with fighting tribal peoples, in being separated from family and everything familiar. Yet Barbara’s joy comes through.
Barbara’s book is divided into three sections – poems given to her in the Sougb language that Barbara then translated into English; reflections on her life as she raised her five children and lived among the Sougb people; and poetic portraits of ten Sougb women. I’ve chosen a poem from each section.
From Star Drops and Spider Hairs, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, posted with the poet’s permission. In this first poem, the author of the translated poem is in italics beneath the title. Phrases in italics within the poem are exact Sougb phrases and conversation translated into English.
Star Drops and Spider Hairs
~ Su-roo-ray Village in the morning
Heaven breaks open atop the ranges.
Sunbeams peek over the ridges.
Light streams spread out, lengthen
and flow down the slopes, melt away
sleepy clouds at rest over Boy Lake.
Celestial greets terrestrial: golden rays
crown the forest canopy.
Star drops fall, sparkling, glistening gems
on slender silken grasses.
Spider hair is strewn in jeweled threads
among drooping petals; laced webs,
woven between bush and branch.
Muffled voices sing rhythmic chants,
the songs of God’s Voice. Smoke seeps
through thatched roofs into dawn haze.
Cedar and burnt-wood scents waft out
and float upwards, absorbed into the mist
after Night’s rain.
Bark doors unlatched, gilded rays rush
in with the promise of warmth to come.
Shoulders shrouded in a faded red blanket
shiver. Weathered feet step over the portal
to stand on the mossy, pole ledge.
Cool mountain air diffuses to welcome
Sun’s radiance into a new day.
Within the Bamboo Fence
I wasn’t afraid – okay, maybe a little.
My husband wasn’t there when men
flooded through the gate, wielding machetes,
bows and arrows at the ready. They chanted
threats in rhythmic beat, divided, and faced
off between two sides, enemies. Local leaders
called a meeting with church elders.
The bamboo fence became a fixed boundary,
inside declared a place of refuge, safety, peace.
A widow fled into our year to claim sanctuary
and release from a forced marriage as a second
wife. Sworn enemies left weapons outside
the bamboo. They settled disagreements, shook
hands on neutral ground. Armed soldiers entered
without fear of rejection to ask for rice, food,
and medicine. My children played in safety
with their friends. All the while, the villagers
watched over us. I wasn’t afraid – anymore.
crowded together on the bench,
everyone talks at once.
I try to catch phrases.
A pause in conversation,
their attention shifts to me.
Emboldened, in child-like curiosity,
they touch my face, my hair,
and run fingers up my arms.
Are they talking about my looks?
Why my hair is straight and theirs is curly?
I understand words, but they talk so fast.
Now everyone laughs, watching Justina
feel my legs, stroke my calves.
At her remarks, the women nod their heads,
murmuring in apparent agreement.
Somebody, please tell me what she said.
Oh mama, I wish I were like you.
Your legs are soft and tender,
Just like chicken drumsticks.
A Sweet Savor: Dei-Yo-Mer
A teenager with a shy smile and quiet
manner, pledged to her father’s friend,
a widower, his children full grown.
It was arranged, agreed – the young bride
would join the white-haired man.
She accepted her destiny
In her early twenties, a mother of one girl,
two boys. He was her father’s age, unwell.
She cared for him through his death. Her days
shortened as a wife, a care-giver, she became
a widow with three children and accepted
her new role without self-pity,
Still young at thirty, she cared for family,
an epileptic child, and worked in the gardens.
Yet she found time for weekly Bible class,
where she renewed her spirit and faith.
Village women came and asked her,
Please, teach your Bible stories
to us, also.
She humbly agreed to their requests.
Because her eyes were blind to letters,
she taught what she knew from memory,
while working and providing for her children.
Ever loyal and true, she chose to follow Jesus’ path
Barbara answers my questions ~
My first poems were writing valentines that we made for our moms in elementary school. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I do remember I didn’t like the ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ poems that kids always wrote. I tried to make mine more substantive, ahem.
I haven’t written any poetry in my adult life, until the last couple of years. Several friends in my writers’ groups challenged me to write free verse using the Sougb tribal language as it sounded when transliterated into English. I am really enjoying doing that, as I learned so much from their language and it has great beauty of words and thoughts when you consider they are a very primitive society.
Who would I like to have a cuppa with, if I could? I would be honored to sit down with Fanny Crosby the prolific hymn writer. So much of what she has written speaks to my heart.